Miriam and Tim’s Little Adventure

I thoroughly enjoyed my recent visit to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and I had every intention of returning. That being said, I did not expect to find myself back there before the end of the week. While I was discussing potential plans for Saturday with Miriam, she casually mentioned that she’d be interested in adding Northern Bobwhite to her life list and trying for the European vagrants visiting the First State. Despite the last minute nature of the scheme, I couldn’t really find an excuse not to sign on. Miriam only needed a few more birds before reaching the milestone of 200 species observed, and I was hoping to get additional views of the specialties and rarities from last weekend. The 3-hour, cross-state drive to Delaware is even shorter than our upstate Great Gray chase back in March, and what is summer vacation for if not crazy, spur of the moment expeditions?

We elected to sleep in relative to my previous predawn departure, hitting the road just before 8 AM. We were unable to avoid a few traffic jams along the way, but our journey south was fairly easy overall. As soon as we crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge, we were treated to an adult Bald Eagle flying down the right shoulder of the road towards us. The low flying raptor provided the best views Miriam has ever had of an eagle to date, and she was understandably excited about the close encounter. I pulled over to put the Jeep’s top up as we approached the refuge, and although the flies were more manageable than last week we were still glad to have the protection of a roof. To Miriam’s delight, we heard Bobwhites calling from the fields while we paid the entry fee. Continuing along the auto route, I checked in with other birders who informed me that the Little Egret, Little Gull, and Ruff had all gone missing after being seen earlier in the morning. On the plus side, an out-of-place juvenile White Ibis was foraging nearby, and we discovered several flocks of American Avocets, one of Miriam’s most wanted birds.

I was frustrated by the absence of our rarer targets, but not so much as to give up on them. I led the charge to the Shearness Pool observation tower, which offered great views of the Little Egret’s favored foraging sites. While carefully panning through the scattered congregations of wading birds, I noticed an individual with streamer-like plumes flickering behind its head like a banner in the breeze. Dark lores were apparent in comparison to the bright yellow faces of the associated Snowies, and the bird seemed marginally taller and bigger billed. Despite the distance, I finally enjoyed the opportunity to watch the Little Egret in nature, in the moment. Miriam and I repeatedly traded places at the scope, admiring the graceful bird as it fed among its more common cousins.

Little Wonders

We fought through the biting insects and made our way back to the parking lot, where I heard a Blue Grosbeak calling in the shrubs. The handsome male that eventually hopped up on an exposed branch was the lucky species to secure spot #200 on Miriam’s life list. Circling back to Raymond Pool, we found a pair of helpful birders who were nice enough to let us look at a far-off Ruff through their scope. There have actually been several distinct individuals identified among the yellowlegs, dowitchers, and other shorebirds at Bombay Hook over the past week, but this bird looked like it could’ve been the same one I saw on Sunday.

On the other hand, it seemed like my former nemesis was back to its old tricks after throwing me a bone last time. The Little Gull, previously so reliable at Raymond, had been evading us throughout the day. Our new friends informed us that the gull had been wandering around the refuge, flying to and from the vast tidal marshes east of the driving loops. They said they’d last seen it at Shearness, and some other visitors along the road gave us more specific directions to where it was roosting. I was eventually able to locate the tricky target, a dark-capped lump of white feathers, sitting by itself way out on the mudflats. I quickly put Miriam on the distant bird, and when I set up my phone to do some digiscoping I found that the gull had vanished once again. Sneaky little bugger.

Several Black-necked Stilts were seen feeding in the marshes, Diamondback Terrapins crossed the road ahead of our car, and the songs of Field Sparrow, Marsh Wren, and Indigo Bunting filled in the soundscape around us. We dedicated some time to snapping pictures at the Purple Martin colony, and the dapper aerialists were happy to show off for us.

The feeders near the visitor center hosted American Goldfinches and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. A couple of Eastern Cottontails, the only wild mammals seen on this outing, were browsing at the edge of the lawn and the thicket. A raucous, chattering cry caused us to wheel around just in time to see a male Yellow-breasted Chat floating down into the foliage as he completed his song flight. We slowly approached the landing site, and I was able to record his wildly improvisational tune. Miriam was amused by that chat’s quirky performance, especially since all of my stories about these weird songbirds had her looking forward to meeting the infamous “bush bird” for the first time. The chat failed to show itself for a second look despite our best efforts, and the Northern Bobwhites across the road remained similarly hidden from sight. Even without a visual on the quails, we managed to connect with every single bird we came looking for. Egret, gull, Ruff, ibis, Bobwhite, chat, avocet, grosbeak, eagle…checks all around, with plenty of extra goodies!

After more than 6 hours exploring Bombay Hook, we packed up our things and headed north. Our growing hunger necessitated a pit stop for an early dinner, and we picked a major winner. Brick Works Brewing and Eats in Smyrna exceeded all expectations: Earth and Fire Fries to start, a Smokehouse Burger for me, Bacon Mac and Cheese for Miriam, and a number of house brewed beers that I just had to sample. I’ll certainly be returning to this establishment the next time I find myself back in Delaware, though it will most likely be longer than a week this time. Our drive home to Long Island was even easier than the drive down, and the sunset behind us brought an end to a perfect day of adventure. It’s always nice to get out and do some impromptu exploration!

Year List Update, July 8 – 314 Species

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Studying Marine Nature

Some summer days are just lazy and pleasant. Nothing too dramatic or exciting, just casual fun. Miriam and I visited the Oceanside Marine Nature Study Area yet again, and we took a lot of pictures. This easily accessed marsh habitat is a popular spot for photographers of all ability levels, and many of the local wildlife have become accustomed to human presence. Like a less exotic version of the Anhinga Trail in the Florida Everglades, OMNSA provides great opportunities to get up close and personal with the resident critters.

The star of the show today was an adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. We watched as the stealthy predator stalked crabs just beyond the boardwalk’s guard rail, tearing off their claws before gulping them down. Miriam pointed out that you could watch the heron’s hapless prey moving as they were slowly swallowed. Awesome.

Crabs are a popular menu item at the Oceanside marsh. We spotted a Herring Gull tucking into a larger Blue Crab out on the mudflats.

We stopped by the Osprey platform, briefly catching a glimpse of one of the nestlings. Two Green Herons, a youngster and an adult, were foraging in one of the tidal creeks. The other expected wading birds, swallows, and sparrows were all present in some numbers.

A Snow Goose has been hanging around with the Canada Geese at this site, seemingly an injured individual who failed to migrate north this spring. We saw it in the distance on our last visit, but today it was resting on a grassy knoll closer to the main trails. Miriam’s quest to photograph a Willet in flight continued, with some success. She did manage to score a clear shot of one bird with its flashy wings spread as it touched down on the muddy shoreline. A clear in-flight snapshot is still the primary goal, yet to be achieved satisfactorily.

Our Oceanside outing, though brief and easygoing, was a fine use of a sunny summer morning. Even the small-scale adventures are a welcome break from the daily hustle and bustle!

Year List Update, July 5 – 314 Species

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Gotta Enjoy the Little Things

This is a story that began a decade ago, in late December 2007. My good buddy Brendan led the charge on an ambitious attempt to score a rarity hat-trick along the South Shore barrier islands. Despite the bitter cold and vicious winds, we made a valiant effort to find our target birds. Regrettably, we fell flat on our faces and missed all three, dipping on Townsend’s Solitaire at Oak Beach and both Black-headed Gull and Little Gull at Point Lookout. Over the years, I have settled these scores one by one. I’ve gotten Black-headed Gull every year since seeing my lifer in 2015, and I finally saw a solitaire in New York this January. The Little Gull, however, proved to be a notoriously dodgy opponent, eventually earning a spot as my number one Nemesis Bird.

Once somewhat regular on Long Island in winter with flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls, Little Gulls have become much harder to find now that numbers and concentrations of wintering Bonies have declined precipitously. A detour to chase a report in Elmira while driving home from Ithaca last April saw me miss the bird by 45 minutes. I failed to connect with an individual that hung around Montauk this February, conducting a fruitless search the day after it had last been seen. Then there was the youngster that visited the Nickerson tern colony last month, evading me and taunting me on two occasions. Last weekend, Mike Z and Tom FH offered me a spot on an impromptu journey to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware, where a Little Gull and an even rarer Little Egret had been discovered. I declined at the last minute due to obligations with family and friends, and they naturally got both birds. With the newfound freedom of summer vacation and reports that my Nemesis and its friend were still present, I decided to make my own trip down to Delaware.

I awoke at exactly 4 AM, and I was driving away from the house before 4:15. The Belt Parkway and Staten Island were conquered so quickly that it felt like a dream, and my GPS welcomed me to New Jersey at 5 AM on the dot. I pulled up to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge at 7:15, paying the entrance fee and making my way towards the observation tower at Raymond’s Pool. Purple Martin apartments bustling with activity and male Blue Grosbeaks fighting over territory highlighted that I’d covered a lot of ground since leaving my bed. As promised by birders who’d visited the site before me, insect activity levels were insane. Biting flies swarmed my vehicle and tried to keep up as I drove along. I slathered myself with insect repellent before stepping out of the car, which kept the little monsters from landing on me but didn’t stop them buzzing around my head. The bugs kept circling me as I walked the trail, never landing, but once I climbed the tower they seemed to disappear. As I turned my gaze toward the pool, I immediately saw the Little Gull, preening calmly on the near shoreline. What an appropriate lack of fanfare and drama after 10 years of missed connections! I took some time to admire my quarry in the early morning glow, and nearby birders pointed out a male Ruff among the yellowlegs, dowitchers, peeps, and plovers that were picking the flats. The day was off to a great start.

As I watched the Ruff and the gull, I continually watched for the third European visitor present at the refuge. There were many long-legged waders dancing around in the shallows at the far end of Raymond’s Pool, and one of them caught my attention as a potential candidate for the Little Egret. Even at a distance, it seemed subtly different from the Snowy Egret it was foraging with. Predictably, once I mentioned the bird of interest to those with stronger scopes it took flight along with its close associate. We followed their trajectory to some trees near a fork in the road, where one path goes towards the entrance and the other continues on to Shearness Pool. I made a mental note to take a look there when I finished up at Raymond’s, and returned to scanning the closer areas. We saw numerous species of shorebirds, herons, and songbirds, and I was very happy to hear the distinctive voices of Northern Bobwhites. Several large Snapping Turtles could be seen trudging through the mud, and I spotted a few Diamondback Terrapins along the road. When I reached the junction between Raymond’s and Shearness Pools, I paused to check the trees. There were about a dozen Snowy Egrets roosting in the branches, and I started analyzing each of them for field marks. Two of the birds were annoyingly hidden, perched at the back and largely obscured by twigs. I noticed that other cars were approaching the intersection from behind me, and I was blocking the way forward at this crossroads. I snapped a few quick pictures of the assemblage and continued on, forgoing closer study so I could clear the road for the other nature enthusiasts.

The familiar faces from the tower at Raymond Pool caught up with me at Shearness, setting up their scopes and scanning intently. I was using my car as an observation blind to defend myself from the biting insects, but I decided to step out and check in with my fellow birders. When I ambled over to them, they mentioned that they had seen the Little Egret in the trees at the junction before it flew off to the north. I began to wonder what my road etiquette had cost me. At the time, we focused on trying to refind the bird, though I did ask them for details later. I was told that the Little Egret had been tucked in towards the back of the tree, hidden among the branches, perched next to a Snowy. When I reviewed my photos on the back of the camera, my suspicions were confirmed.

The frustratingly concealed pair that I’d noted before driving away may well have been the same two birds I saw fly to the tree during the earlier stakeout, but one of them was definitely the Little Egret. My pictures show the bird preening, and unlike the shaggy crests of the adjacent Snowies, it has long, thin feathers extending from the back of the head. The marked difference in head plumes is the single best field mark for distinguishing between these two species, as illustrated by the illustrious David Allen Sibley. In some of the images, it is possible to make out the bare skin between the eyes and the bill, the lores. The dull, grayish face of the Little Egret contrasts with the vivid yellow of its Snowy cousin. Although the photographic evidence of these two characteristics confirmed that I had seen the right bird, the poor views and subsequent confirmation of the ID were not as satisfying as it would’ve been to enjoy the egret in the moment. If only all lifers could be as cooperative as the morning’s Little Gull!

In the time between seeing the egret and checking my photos, I continued to explore the refuge. I spent a good chunk of my time at Shearness Pool, scanning from the roadside before heading to the watchtower. Once again, I was attacked by flies between the car and the observation platform, but I was mysteriously left alone once I ascended to the upper deck. At one point I saw an egret in a flock at the furthest corner of the mudflats that had long, thin streamers billowing out behind its head. At such a distance, my scope wasn’t powerful enough to confirm anything else before the bird took flight. Although it flew slightly closer, it hid behind a row of vegetation, and the egret that came out didn’t look as promising as the initial sighting. Did the Little Egret fly in and sit tight while a Snowy walked out? Were the “head plumes” I thought I saw pale, poorly placed blades of grass? Was this the tricky Snowy with stray elongated feathers in its lacey crest that we saw earlier? Some birding questions remain unanswered, but I’m comfortable with that. At least least I did see the bird, however ridiculous the circumstances may have been. There were plenty of other goodies to distract me from the headaches the egrets were giving me. As I stood vigil at the Shearness tower, I was treated to a number of lovely locals, including a pair of Orchard Orioles, noisy Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and several Bald Eagles that terrorized the wading birds out on the flats.

The flies found me once again when I started back towards my car. As I swatted to keep them at bay, I heard a familiar medley of whistles, purrs, and chuckles emanating from the bushes by the parking lot. The singer disappeared in a flash as I approached, but I could hear several other Yellow-breasted Chats vocalizing nearby. I reapplied my bug spray and paused to listen for a while. One of the birds fluttered into view, showing off his song flight display. His return to the foliage was received by a territorial Gray Catbird, and after a brief scrap the chat flew across the road, directly at me. He landed in a bare bush at close range, watching me intently as I snapped pictures. His lively performance continued, popping his head up for each hoot and leaning forward to deliver raspy chatters. I was especially happy to spend some quality time with this bird, since it felt like a celebration of the recent AOS decision to recognize the Yellow-breasted Chat’s distinctiveness by classifying it in a monotypic family separate from the warblers. Three cheers for Icteriidae!

Yellowthroats, Indigo Buntings, Field Sparrows, and Acadian Flycatchers were encountered along the brushy edges between field and forest. I heard Marsh Wrens and Clapper Rails calling from the tidal channels east of the main road. A Painted Turtle, a White-tailed Deer fawn, and numerous dragonflies rounded out the day’s non-avian checklist. The deer flies, green head flies, and mosquitoes were less welcome observations, but it was a gorgeous day at the refuge all the same.

Back at the park headquarters, I enjoyed an extended photo shoot and recording session with the breeding Purple Martins. Several structures chock full of nesting gourds were set up near the main lot, and the giant swallows were hard at work collecting meals for their growing offspring. I heard a few more Bobwhites in the field across the way, but despite my best efforts I couldn’t get a visual on the adorable little quails. Hearing their namesake cries, which have become so rare in many parts of their former range, was enough of a treat for me.

I finally took my leave of Bombay Hook in the early afternoon. I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to this famous refuge, and I was especially pleased that I caught up with all of my planned targets. Although the elusive Little Egret was not nearly as accommodating as the Little Gull that broke my curse, seeing both species in one place without a trip to Europe was a privilege. My number one Nemesis Bird spot is now left open, and I’m sure that vacuum can’t exist for long. If nothing else, I’ll need to get improved views a Little Egret one of these days. The Ruff was a welcome bonus bird, and my encounters with the chats, Bobwhites, turtles, and other wildlife all added up to make this “little” adventure a grand success. The expedition was well worth the long drive, though the manageable traffic on both legs of the trip certainly helped to keep me sane. Here’s hoping my next outing is equally enjoyable!

Year List Update, July 2 – 314 Species (+ Little Gull, Lesser Yellowlegs, Northern Bobwhite, Ruff, Little Egret)

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School’s Out for Summer

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, but it’s finally summer for real! What’s more, my grad school days are completely behind me! The sense of relief after two years of hard work is immense, and it was a struggle against absurdity right up until the end. My master’s defense work was due on Monday, June 26. I was invited to several awesome-sounding events for the preceding weekend, so I pushed myself to get everything completed during the prior week. I managed to have everything finished and submitted by Wednesday, and it’s a damn good thing I did. After celebrating Greg’s birthday on Friday after work, I fell asleep on a train and left my bag behind when I got off. Without my laptop and student data, I would’ve been pretty far down a certain creek if I had not completed my responsibilities beforehand. In a way, my friend’s saved me by inviting me to parties that motivated me to finish early!

After helping Dad put up some fence on Saturday, Miriam and I headed out to the Hamptons for a delicious dinner courtesy of Anthony. After some fantastic paella, a smorgasbord of appetizers, plenty of drinks, and a late night dip in the pool, we took our leave. Brendan joined us on the journey home and we stopped to listen for nightbirds along the way. The Whip-poor-wills we heard near Francis Gabreski Airport were Miriam’s first, and a Marsh Wren was an acceptable consolation prize for the missed Chuck at Quogue. Wine tasting in Baiting Hollow with my coworkers made Sunday a roaring success, and it wouldn’t have been possible without Joe’s thorough planning. I made it through my school’s graduation on Tuesday and the last day of work on Wednesday. Miriam wanted to get in some exploration before my final presentation on Thursday night, so we made a morning excursion to Oceanside Marine Nature Study Area.

Miriam had never been to this preserve before, so I took joy in showing off the array of cooperative wildlife that can be observed and photographed along the trails. We spent some time near the end of the path, keeping a respectful distance from the Osprey nest and snapping pictures as the parents watched over their growing nestlings.

We were fortunate enough to see several Saltmarsh Sparrows fluttering in and out of the grass. A few of them were nice enough to perch up for extended periods of time, allowing nice views before they hopped down and scurried away out of sight. The resident Red-winged Blackbirds were far more conspicuous, providing ample opportunity for close study and photography.

Both Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets are common at Oceanside. We watched as one of the Snowies waggled its bright yellow feet in the water. This behavior is believed to either lure or stir up aquatic life so the bird has an easier time striking at them. Whatever the purpose of these colorful extremities, they make these fancy birds look extra flashy.

After our outing at Lido Beach, Miriam developed a desire to get a picture of a Willet in flight. The bold, contrasting patterns of black and white feathers on their wings are striking subjects for photography. Thanks to the concentrations of birds and their proximity to the trails, Oceanside is one of the best nearby places to make an effort for this goal. Unfortunately, the birds seemed to be toying with us this morning. They never took off while we were watching and waiting, and whenever they went airborne they would fly behind vegetation or in front of the sun. No nice flight shots this time, but the birds will be there all summer. Plenty of time to try again another day!

At the opposite end of the cooperation spectrum were a family of Tree Swallows posted right along the path. Three new fledglings were nestled together on a branch, looking mighty adorable as they waited for their next meal.

Mom and Dad repeatedly returned to drop off mouthfuls of insects for their eager offspring. We were able to observe these precious moments at close range, watching with awe as the parents swooped in to serve breakfast to the babies. I always appreciate the opportunity to do some quality birdWATCHING, rather than just scrambling around in search of rarities. This lovely morning with the swallow family was just the kind of relaxation I needed after my hectic week.

Miriam and I returned to our homes and prepared for the evening, meeting up to head into Manhattan together. Against all odds, I actually got my bag back from the LIRR lost and found, with all contents intact! I delivered my master’s defense presentation without any problems, and we celebrated at nearby Aleo with my friendly bartender Alba. It was a fine kickoff to vacation, and I’m happy to put that stress behind me for now. Here I come, summer!

Year List Update, June 29 – 309 Species (+ Saltmarsh Sparrow)

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South Shore Surprises

It’s been a busy couple of weeks here on Long Island. The post-migration season this year has seen a number of unexpected discoveries as non-breeders and off-course travelers wander up and down the East Coast. Most of the noteworthy action has been centered along the shoreline, and a majority of the highlights have been out of place waterbirds. Monday was the last day of normal classes until the end of the month, and I got off work a little earlier than expected. I decided to make a trip down to the barrier beaches in the hopes of following up on some reported rarities. My first stop was Jones Beach, where the Black-necked Stilts from a few weeks back had been sighted once again. I was fortunate enough to find the slender shorebirds quite quickly, though they remained distant and poorly lit in the fading light of day. After happily adding this species to my New York State list, I turned back towards the car, noting a noisy Royal Tern that flew west over the swale.

I continued on to Nickerson Beach, where rare birds continued to surprise observers at the tern colony. Apart from continuing Roseates and Royals, a new Arctic, and a few Black Terns that continued to elude me, several lucky birders had been treated to glimpses of a young Little Gull, my Nemesis Bird. It had been seen only twice, nearly a week apart, for only a few minutes at a time. The most recent encounter occurred while I was en route to Edgewood for the Whip-poor-will show. I knew that hoping for repeat performance was a bit of a pipe dream, but I was willing to put in the time for an evening vigil on the beach. Mike Z, Rob P, and several other familiar birders were on site to keep me company, and we had a great time enjoying the local birds as the sun slowly sank towards the horizon line.

Rob, the original finder, told me that the Little Gull had apparently been harassed fiercely by the resident breeders both times that it visited the beachfront nesting grounds. Anyone who’s ever been around nesting Common Terns can tell you how intense they are about defending the perimeter of their territory, including the airspace above it. “Relentless” is just about the most polite term you can apply to these plucky little seabirds when describing their anti-intruder assaults. The grating, staccato calls that they utter while diving at interlopers sound like bursts from a machine gun, and they have a nasty habit of letting loose bombs of excrement with startling precision. Most of their swooping attacks pull up just short of contact, but the brave birds will not hesitate to dole out pecks on the noggin for invaders who push their luck. I’ve lost a few drops of blood to this species during nesting surveys on Eastern Egg Rock, with some individuals even perching on my head to really drive their point home. The Nickerson birds are just as aggressive with any and all perceived threats. For several hours, we watched as Royal Terns, Ospreys, and American Oystercatchers were pursued by angry Common Terns.

As the sun slipped out of view, the birds began to settle in for the night. The Little Gull was a no-show, so we were getting ready to pack it up and head out. Suddenly, the flocks launched back into the air, twisting and weaving at low altitude and flying towards the water. The Project Puffin field biologists called this phenomenon “the dread:” a coordinated display that’s seemingly intended to disorient predators and make it difficult to isolate a singular target. We searched for the source of the commotion and found an adult Peregrine Falcon clutching a tern in its talons. Birds repeatedly dove at the raptor, and surprisingly it dropped its catch! I lost track of the would-be-prey in the swirling storm of seabirds, but the falcon wasn’t going home hungry. The Common Terns continued their chase tactics, attempting to drive the Peregrine away. On its third pass through the colony, it managed to snag a kill and hold onto it. We watched the bird fly east with its supper, disappearing into the dark as calm slowly returned to the beach. What an amazing end to the day!

Miriam had marked the stilts on her most wanted list and was already pretty bummed about missing them the first time, so she was eager to take a second swing at them when she wasn’t busy with work. We returned to the swale again on Wednesday, getting much better looks at the long-legged vagrants. While we were admiring their fancy, monochrome plumage, we spotted a White-rumped Sandpiper foraging nearby. I’d seen a few of these birds from afar on Monday, but it was nice to see one up close for the first time this year. For Miriam, it was yet another lifer. Vicious mosquitoes kept us from lingering too long at the site, but we went home satisfied with our encounter.

The weather was a bit iffy on Saturday, but we still jumped at the opportunity to get out and do some exploring. I introduced Miriam to the nesting Purple Martins at the marina adjacent to the Lido Beach Passive Nature Area. We also spotted several families of Canada Geese, including an individual marked with a neck collar. I reported the bird to the relevant authorities with the necessary details. It’s always cool to see a banded individual in the wild!

We walked the trails that led out into the marsh, taking note of a robin carrying food and a fledgling Red-winged Blackbird along the way. There were plenty of Willets hanging out at close range, and egrets and night-herons could be seen foraging further out in the grassy expanse. The foggy conditions made photography a bit difficult, but sometimes its enough just to see the birds well.

After scanning the saltmarshes from the observation deck, we started back towards the parking lot. Ospreys were seen making use of the man-made structures supplied for them, resting on perches and nesting platforms as they surveyed the scene. Our final surprise of the morning was a muskrat foraging in the grass not far from our car. It quickly scurried into the brush as we approached, showing off its flattened tail as it bounced away to safety. I brought Miriam home and headed back to Lynbrook to get ready for the day’s obligations.

I was at a family barbecue later that afternoon, beginning to plan my exit when I got a exciting report. A Brown Booby had been discovered at Nickerson Beach by Joshua Malbin, Shai, and Pat L, continuing the trend of surprising seabirds at this magic colony. I called up Miriam, inadvertently waking her from a nap, to deliver the news. When she heard the latest update from the field, she sprang awake and began getting her gear together. She was already eagerly waiting outside the house by the time I reached her, and we rushed down to the coast yet again. Upon arrival, we found that the fog had thickened and now shrouded the entirety of the beach. Misinterpreting the email in my haste, I led the charge down to the eastern tern colony, finding no birders and no booby. I sent out a text update, and the mist began to retreat slightly. I was surprised when it revealed a huge congregation in the distance, optics trained on the western colony. My phone started to blow up with messages, calls, and voicemails as the good birders of Long Island reached out to correct my mistake. Miriam and I hastened our pace, arriving to find the bird still present on her perch atop a Piping Plover exclosure.

This was not my first booby in New York, but the bird was undoubtedly a long way from her home in the Caribbean. Brown Boobies have a propensity to wander, though the voyages are not always easy for them. This adult female had her head tucked behind a wing, and the ever-obnoxious Common Terns were divebombing her repeatedly as she tried to catch some rest. The feathers of her upperparts had already been fouled by their excretory assault…hardly a warm welcome for this exhausted, lost traveler. We watched the bird for some times and exchanged congratulations, hugs, and laughs with the other assembled birders. Miriam and I did a stint in the car when the rain started to pick up, but we walked back down to the nesting grounds as the sun was about to set. We spied the first baby plovers of the year, as well as plenty of young oystercatchers. An adult Black Tern flew overhead, calling loudly before settling in with the loafing flock for a bit. As we prepared to leave the beach, I passed my binoculars to Miriam and suggested that perhaps the booby would lift her head “for the last look.” Against all odds, she did! We got to see the her distinctive bare face and pointed bill as she scanned her surroundings one last time for the day. When she went back to sleep, we went back to the vehicle.

The morning brought unfortunate, if unsurprising, news. After taking a dawn flight along the shoreline, the female Brown Booby collapsed on her perch early in the day and expired. Her remains were collected as a specimen for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and it may be possible to determine if it was illness, starvation, or exhaustion that brought her tale to this sad end. Obviously death is a fact of life, and it is often difficult for these shockingly lost rarities to survive in strange lands. All the same, I’ll raise a glass to this particular bird, whose improbable path crossed mine and linked the narratives of our lives for this short period of time. I think many of the birders who got to meet her will feel similarly: impressed by her journey, saddened by her passing, relieved that her final resting place will be an institution of science, and honored to have witnessed her alive in nature during the final chapter of her story.

Year List Update, June 18 – 308 Species (+ White-rumped Sandpiper, Purple Martin, Black Tern)

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Adventures at the End

I love when plans for an unexpected journey come together on the spur of a moment. With beautiful weather forecast for Saturday, Miriam suggested that we take her Jeep out to Montauk and do some exploration. Of the friends asked on short notice, only Josh was able to join us, but we ended up taking Gracie, Miriam’s pit bull, along for the ride. The drive out was fantastic, with the top down the breeze and the bright sun felt divine. We stopped for lunch at Lunch, also known as the Lobster Roll, in Napeague before continuing onward to Shadmoor State Park. This site is best known for its massive World War II-era bunkers, looming imposingly atop towering bluffs that look out over the sea. These sandy structures are also home to colonies of Bank Swallows that have excavated nests in the sheer faces of the cliffs. We watched the swallows as they wheeled about, swooping low over the path and cruising along the land’s edge.

We stared down from our lofty perch at the waves crashing 100 feet below. There were lots of folks walking along the beach, and several surfers were hanging around in the water. I was surprised to see a large flock of nearly 200 Black Scoters foraging among the breakers. These sea ducks, along with their close cousins, are superabundant off the coast of Montauk during the winter. Although small numbers often linger, this kind of congregation is a rare sight in summer.

When we finished our hike at Shadmoor, we turned back west and headed for Hither Hills State Park. We took one of the access roads through the woods to get to the beach, bouncing over roots and ruts along the way. Josh remarked that riding in the Jeep over rough terrain with dense greenery all around us reminded him of Jurassic Park. Not a minute later, a dinosaurian silhouette dashed across the road in front of us. Had someone left the raptor paddock open? We slowed to a crawl and crept up on the bush where the shadow had disappeared, coming face to face with a female Wild Turkey. The beefy bird slowly strode off into the forest, providing great views as she strutted through the foliage. We encountered a Red Fox a bit further down the path, and there were plenty of smaller birds singing near the lot at the terminus of the road.

We spent nearly two hours lounging on the shores of Long Island Sound, soaking up sun and basking in the breeze. While we were relaxing on the sand, we checked ourselves for unwanted passengers. Miriam and I found a few ticks crawling on our clothes, but Josh and Gracie both had multiple individuals latched onto their bodies. Once the bloodthirsty arachnids were removed, we were able to fully enjoy the lazy afternoon by the water. A showy male mockingbird and a few performing Prairie Warblers caused us to pause at the lot before we got back in the vehicle. After snapping a few pictures, we drove back out the way we came.

We arrived at Big Reed Pond as the shadows were beginning to grow longer. The exhaustion of a full day in the sunlight was starting to get to me, but I knew that this was a great area to explore for wildlife. I got a bit turned around on the trails since we didn’t enter the way I usually come in during the Christmas Bird Count. Eventually, however, we came around a bend to find the swaying reeds that encircle the pond. I was pretty spaced out, enjoying the golden glow of evening and listening intently to birdsong as we walked along.

The peace was suddenly broken by a sharp shriek and a burst of movement as a something went scrambling from the side of the trail into the brush. “What the hell is that? A chicken?” asked Josh. “Do they have chickens out here? Look at that thing!” The small fowl had quickly scurried into thick cover, but it remained barely visible as it paced back and forth in the undergrowth, calling loudly. I strained to make out the details, confirming that it had rusty plumage, black-and-white stripes on the flanks, a short, cocked tail, and a long, reddish bill. I was hoping to come across some Virginia Rails at this location, but I was not expecting to stumble upon one at close range like this. The bird continued walking around and vocalizing, staying in the same general area. I suspect that it had a nest or young close by, so I led the others along and left it in peace. We found a pair of Tree Swallows nesting at a duck blind further down the trail, reveling in amazing views in the late afternoon light. We heard and saw the rail yet again, still skulking beyond the edge of the path, as we passed by en route to the Jeep.

It’s only fitting to spend the end of the day at the End of the Island. After a quick dinner, we returned to the Point to watch the sun go down. The colorful skies over the Sound did not disappoint. It was a great final act for our adventure, and we listened to the final performances of the nearby songbirds as the day came to a close. Josh was kind enough to take the wheel, and I for one was slipping in and out of consciousness the whole way back west.

On the journey home, I convinced the crew to stop in Quogue and listen for singing nightjars. Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will’s-widows are known to inhabit the wooded areas in this neighborhood, and it is possible to hear both species from the same stretch of road if you’re lucky. Unfortunately, I had no such luck. Perhaps we had arrived too late after sunset, maybe the birds were busy foraging or singing deeper in the forest. At any rate, it was a swing and a miss. It was hard to complain about this strikeout at the end of a fun, full day, but I still wanted to settle the score.

After a sweltering, uneventful Sunday, I drove out to Edgewood Oak Brush Plains Preserve just before dusk. I had only visited this park once before, but I had received intel that it was a prime spot for listen for Whip-poor-wills. I’d already seen and heard Chucks earlier in the year, and I really wasn’t looking to drive all the way back to Quogue just to take a chance at hearing them simultaneously again. The Whips would have to do, assuming I was lucky enough to find them. I maintained a brisk pace as I walked out to the spot where I’d seen the Red Crossbills back in March. A passing biker stopped to chat with me as I waited for the sun to set, sharing fun facts and short stories about the property and his experiences over the years. He didn’t continue along until the sky had begun to darken, but after he said farewell I noted a Whip-poor-will singing close by.

 Music of the Night

The Eastern Whip-poor-will is named for its iconic song, a rolling, repetitive chant that is frequently heard on summer evenings in the woods. Their whistled cries have featured prominently in literature and music, variously described as melancholy, manic, eerie, irritating, or soothing. It’s hard to believe that all these folks are listening to the same bird, but there’s no denying that it’s an evocative sound. Personally, I love the lilting lullaby delivered by Antrostomus vociferus. I tallied half a dozen individuals in the preserve that night, singing with gusto and pausing only to nab flying insects or switch perches. I stood among the shadowed trees, enjoying the chorus of Whip-poor-wills and watching fireflies twinkle across the landscape. The air was still, the sky was clear, and the temperature was ideal. In short, it was a perfect night to kick off the summer season.

Year List Update, June 11 – 305 Species (+ Bank Swallow, Virginia Rail, Eastern Whip-poor-will)

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Tern It Up

As the school year draws to a close and the official beginning of summer approaches, my thoughts turn to terns. These elegant little seabirds nest in large numbers along the south shore of Long Island, and early June is the prime time to visit their bustling breeding colonies. Most of the birds in these crowded congregations are Common Terns, joined by groups of Black Skimmers and a few Least Terns. When the parents fly out to sea forage en masse, they attract the attention of migrating individuals that are passing by offshore. These birds may follow the feeding flocks back to the beach, where they end up loafing around among the locals.

The closest, most accessible, most reliable colony in my area is at Nickerson Beach. As long as you arrive before 10 or after 4, you can avoid the exorbitant entry charge and check out the action down on the coast. During my first year back home after college, Nickerson was on fire. I saw 8 different species of terns in one day standing post. 2016 was a bit less exciting, but you can always count on this site to serve up something worthwhile. This year, the rarity reports started flooding in with the force of a burst dam. I headed down the beach on Wednesday afternoon, but I failed to connect with most of the anticipated targets. A flyby pair of Gull-billed Terns and a handful of Roseate Terns relaxing on the sand were welcome observations, but the Arctic, Sandwich, Royal, and Black Terns seen previously didn’t turn up. Rob P even discovered a young Little Gull, my number one Nemesis Bird, which also failed to return. I left the beach as sunset, finding consolation in dinner from Jordan’s Lobster Farms.

Thursday found me back at the beach yet again. I put in about an hour of search time, but failed to locate anything particularly noteworthy. Plovers, Willets, and large flocks of gulls kept me amused as I sifted through hundreds of skimmers and terns.

Mike Z refound the Arctic Tern bright and early on Friday morning, so I headed straight to Nickerson after quitting time. I coordinated with Brendan to see if he cared to join me in my hunt, and he ended up reaching the site before I did. No one had seen the tern since Mike watched it fly away, but I still felt good about the odds of finding it. I set up my scope at the edge of the eastern colony, began sweeping through the birds, and quickly picked up a subtly different individual. Tiny, short legs resulted in a slope-backed stance, and the overall coloration was grayer than the surrounding Common Terns. The head was rounder, the bill was shorter and darker red. A more extensive black cap ended closer to the gape, highlighted by a thin stripe of white that set the gray body plumage apart. The tail streamers were marginally longer, extending beyond the tips of the folded wings. Bingo.

Arctic Terns are the world champions of migration. No other living creature known to man travels so far over the course of a single year. Breeding in the northern limits of the planet and wintering in the Antarctic, this species chases summer back and forth across the globe. The record was recently set by an individual that flew 59,650 miles round trip. This incredible journey results in the Arctic Tern seeing more daylight annually than any other organism. I’m a lifelong fan of these winged wanderers, and I felt privileged to live in their world, however briefly, during my summer on the Project Puffin team. Seeing one of these birds away from its nesting grounds is a rare treat. It’s amazing that this tern’s globetrotting adventure brought it so close to my home.

I put out a report that I had relocated the Arctic, and birders rushed to the scene. Brendan, Doug F, Rob P, Kevin, Stefan, and Arie were among those who were happy to find the bird still present when they arrived. I stayed put to keep tabs on the tern, watching for it whenever the flock took flight and taking pains to track where it perched. We were also treated to a trio of Royal Terns that noisily flew west down the beach, and there were plenty of gulls and shorebirds present for photo opps.

I returned home just before sunset, ready to relax after a long week of work and bird chasing. An evening spent in the company of an Arctic Tern is lovely by default, and it was only improved by the air of camaraderie surrounding the scene of the observation. Quite frankly, it was birding at its best: old friends and new faces coming and going, sharing the challenge of identifying and monitoring a high-quality bird, swapping stories and trading wisdom. There’s nothing else quite like it!

Year List Update, June 9 – 302 Species (+ Roseate Tern, Arctic Tern)

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